Crews, Weather Assist In Fighting Calif. Fires

Firefighters are reporting some progress as they battle wildfires around Los Angeles. Higher humidity and a slight break in the heat have allowed firefighters to build lines around a quarter of the blaze.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And here in southern California, firefighters are finally beginning to gain control of the giant wildfire burning north of Los Angeles. It is still growing in size, but it's not nearly as fast as it was just a couple of days ago. And last night, as the danger passed in some neighborhoods, scores of evacuees went back home.

Joining us now, as she has all week, is NPR's Mandalit del Barco. She's been following these fires all over California, but this one in particular. Good morning.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Good morning again, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Mandalit, finally some good news to report about the fire. It had to do with the fact that last night was not nearly as hot.

DEL BARCO: That's right. And, you know, in firefighting the weather is crucial. Last night the temperatures dropped and the humidity increased just a bit, and that brought some moisture to the area that was, as they say, bone dry. Also the wind - there hasn't been much of it driving the flames.

The annual Santa Ana winds haven't really kicked in yet, and that's given firefighters a chance to move into the threatened areas to set back fires. That's to cut off the fuel and stop the wildfire from spreading so rapidly.

Yeah, yesterday, they sent out an incredibly large Boeing 747 filled with water and retardant. The supertanker can dump up to 20,000 gallons in a single load to help dowse the flames. But the weather is unpredictable, and you know, they say the fire could easily burn for at least another week or maybe two weeks.

MONTAGNE: Right. But the thousands of people who've been fleeing the fire over the weekend - I mean, there's still plenty of people out of their homes but some are back. Are the evacuations themselves over now?

DEL BARCO: Well, in some places, there are still people being evacuated, but -and then there are some people who are defying the orders to evacuate and they're still hoping to ride out the firestorm. But things are definitely better in some communities on the edge of the Angeles National Forest, like La Crescenta and La Canada.

Here's Carl Mersoyen(ph). He's 16 and he's been sweating it out with his family at one of the shelters.

Mr. CARL MERSOYEN: They already told us, like, you can go home already, but we're going to stay out a little bit longer until the smoke kind of goes away, and then we'll go back.

DEL BARCO: The fire's still very active in some areas with flames up to 80 feet tall and the air quality is so bad that it's spreading across the West. The strip in Las Vegas is reportedly covered with smoke from California. And I understand there's smoke and ashes from this fire even as far as Denver, Colorado.

MONTAGNE: And, Mandalit, it wasn't just people fleeing the fire - tigers, chimps, reptiles, birds that lived in a wildlife refuge - were also evacuated.

DEL BARCO: That's right. I spoke to workers at the Wildlife Way Station as they were loading hundreds of exotic animals onto flatbeds and trailers. Animals were given temporary shelter at the L.A. Zoo and other compounds. But at the zoo, two chimps escaped and made their way into the small primates exhibit and into Griffith Park. They had to be wrangled back and they must have been pretty spooked by all the commotion.

But in another location - the Shambala Preserve - dozens of lions and big cats, including Michael Jackson's cats, are still in place.

MONTAGNE: And we've been talking this week about the TV and radio transmitter complex and the observatory on top of Mount Wilson. And I see that something like 150 firefighters are now on the mountain ready to fight the fire if it gets right to the top.

DEL BARCO: That's right. Firefighters say they're fairly optimistic that Mount Wilson will be spared. Yesterday, they set control burns and they hit the area hard with water-dropping airplanes, including an air tanker built for the Navy in World War II.

MONTAGNE: Mandalit, thanks very much.

DEL BARCO: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mandalit del Barco reporting on the progress firefighters are making - for the moment at least - in the battle against the huge wildfire north of Los Angeles.

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Calif. Fire Officials Optimistic About Containing Blaze

Flames from a backfire flare up in the hills behind homes Monday in La Crescenta, Calif. The out of control Station Fire had burned more than 120,000 acres as of Tuesday morning. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

Photo Gallery: California Wildfires
itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A resident of Tujunga, Calif. takes a photograph of a back fire that burns near his home Tuesday. i i

A resident of Tujunga, Calif. takes a photograph of a back fire that burns near his home Tuesday. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
A resident of Tujunga, Calif. takes a photograph of a back fire that burns near his home Tuesday.

A resident of Tujunga, Calif. takes a photograph of a back fire that burns near his home Tuesday.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Fire officials reported significant progress toward gaining ground on a massive wildfire sweeping through the mountains above Los Angeles, burning scores of homes and threatening thousands more as well as a historic observatory housing some of the largest telescopes ever built.

U.S. Forest Service incident commander Mike Dietrich says Tuesday containment rose from 5 percent to 22 percent. The fire area now covers 199 square miles.

At least 53 homes have been destroyed in the Station Fire, and neighborhoods on the northern and southern flanks of the blaze have been evacuated.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency in five California counties hit by devastating and costly wildfires.

"There's action everywhere," Schwarzenegger said Tuesday as a thundering helicopter interrupted a news conference at the scene of two other wildfires burning in the inland region east of Los Angeles.

The governor said the state has spent nearly 60 percent of its $182 million emergency firefighting fund just two months into the fiscal year, and criticized Democratic lawmakers who had pushed for a smaller reserve. California has also applied for six grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help fight fires.

President Obama has said he would do what he could to help state and local governments.

Smoke from the Station Fire towers over downtown Los Angeles on Monday. i i

Smoke from the Station Fire towers over downtown Los Angeles on Monday. Jon Vidar/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jon Vidar/AP
Smoke from the Station Fire towers over downtown Los Angeles on Monday.

Smoke from the Station Fire towers over downtown Los Angeles on Monday.

Jon Vidar/AP

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that White House is receiving regular updates on the wildfires, and will continue to monitor the situation.

Officials say it may take weeks to fully contain the flames. However, the commander of the firefighting operation said Tuesday that he was encouraged by the progress being made.

"I'm feeling a lot more optimistic today than I did yesterday and the crews are doing fabulous work out there on the grounds, but the bottom line is that they're fighting for every foot," said Mike Dietrich of the U.S. Forest Service.

Although the fire is listed as only 5 percent contained, Dietrich said that figure should improve once overnight progress is mapped. He said bulldozers had cut up to 12 miles of new firebreaks overnight Monday and that no new structures had been damaged.

U.S. Forest Service workers hike down a hill while fighting the Station Fire in Tujunga, Calif. i i

U.S. Forest Service workers hike down a hill while fighting the Station Fire on Monday in Tujunga, Calif. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
U.S. Forest Service workers hike down a hill while fighting the Station Fire in Tujunga, Calif.

U.S. Forest Service workers hike down a hill while fighting the Station Fire on Monday in Tujunga, Calif.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Station Fire is by far the largest of several blazes dotting the state. It has burned for six days, plowing through half-century-old thickets of tinder-dry brush, bush and trees just 15 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Some 12,000 homes are threatened and about 2,000 people have been forced to flee.

The flames threaten to climb Mount Wilson, a 5,700-foot peak near Pasadena that is home to a landmark 100-inch telescope — the world's largest until 1948. It is also the site of most of the radio and TV station towers in Los Angeles. Firefighters were setting backfires and spraying fire retardant in the area to halt the blaze's advance.

The U.S. Forest Service reports that the blaze has destroyed more than 122,000 acres, or about 190 square miles. Fire spokesman Paul Lowenthal said Tuesday that it isn't expected to be fully surrounded until Sept. 15.

A total of 3,600 firefighters and numerous aircraft have been deployed to fight the fire. Crews are grappling with weather conditions that favor fire: temperatures topping 100 degrees and low humidity.

Los Angeles County Fire Department, Google Maps

"It gets to a point in the afternoon with the wind coming up that it even makes its own weather," Dixie Dees, a spokesperson with the Station Fire incident command center, said. "When the temperature goes up and humidity goes down and the wind comes up, which is what's happened in the last three or four days, that's kind of the perfect storm for very aggressive fire behavior."

Meteorologist Curt Kaplan said there was a 20 percent chance of a thunderstorm in the fire area Tuesday, but that could end up hurting efforts because the storm could bring 40-mph wind gusts.

The flames also have moved dangerously close to the 160-acre Wildlife Waystation sanctuary, a rehabilitation facility for wild and exotic wildlife.

The sanctuary's publicist, Jerry Brown, said volunteers have helped move hundreds of birds, reptiles and chimpanzees to safety. He said the animals "don't quite know what's going on."

"There's a lot of commotion, there's smoke in the air," Brown said. "We still have lions, still have tigers, still have wolves — there's still a good bit of work to be done."

The swath of fire extends from the densely populated Los Angeles foothills communities of Altadena, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Tujunga and Sunland in the south to the high-desert ranch lands of Acton.

Tujunga Canyon resident Bert Voorhees said he and his son were able to retrieve several cases of wine from the brackish water of their backyard swimming pool Monday, about all he salvaged from his home.

"You're going to be living in a lunar landscape for at least a couple of years, and these trees might not come back," the 53-year-old Voorhees said, wondering aloud how many of his neighbors would choose to rebuild.

Two firefighters — Capt. Tedmund Hall, 47, of San Bernardino and firefighter Spc. Arnaldo "Arnie" Quinones, 35, of Palmdale — were killed Sunday when their vehicle plummeted off a mountain road. At least three residents who ignored an evacuation order suffered major burns.

Several fires across the state are much smaller and largely contained, but a new blaze in San Bernardino County — directly east of the Station Fire — has engulfed 900 acres so far and threatens 2,000 homes.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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